Teaching Piano for Different Learning Styles: Part 1

Welcome to part 1 in our 4-part series on using Myers-Briggs Type Indicators to understand differences in personality and learning styles. 

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

One of the most challenging and rewarding things about teaching is the struggle to figure out what works. How do you get your students to those satisfying "aha" moments? If you teach private piano lessons, the need to get this right is even more pressing - if your students aren't enjoying themselves, chances are they'll simply quite. And the best way to make sure they enjoy themselves is to make sure they keep learning.

The problem is that every student is different, and what works well for one student may not work as well for another. Psychologists and educators have developed a number of systems to help us recognize and categorize these differences. 

These systems aren't meant to predict everything about your students, but they're great for getting us to think about how and why different people process information differently. We can use them to help us analyze our teaching tactics, and find opportunities to make them more flexible and adaptable to individual student needs. They also help us overcome misunderstandings that arise from differences in personality.

For series of articles, we've decided to look at the Myers-Briggs Type Indicators (MBTI). It's a system created in the early 1900s by the mother-daughter team of Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs-Myers. The two hoped that their questionnaire would help women - who were entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers during World War II - find the ideal type of employment for their personality. The system has since been widely adopted by teachers, managers, and human resources departments in their quest to better understand human interactions.

Myers-Briggs places each of us on four different spectrums according to our preferences in each area:

  • extraverted vs. introverted (E or I)
  • sensing vs. intuitive (S or N)
  • thinking vs. feeling (T or F)
  • judging vs. perceiving (J or P)

You'll often hear Myers-Briggs Type Indicators expressed as a set of 4 letters, one for each spectrum. For example, you might be INTP: introverted-intuitive-sensing-percieving. Or you might be ESFJ: extraverted-intuitive-sensing-percieving.

Rather than describe each possible combination, however, we're going to look at each of the 4 spectrums individually and think about its implications for teaching and learning. If you want, you can decide which "letter" best represents you after reading the article. However, we think the most important thing is to be able to use the concepts to solve teaching problems.

As you learn about Myers-Briggs Type Indicators, it's important to remember that these are preferences - we may prefer to do things one way, but it doesn't mean that's our only option. You may not even have strong preferences in each area. However, recognizing that some people do can give us a better handle on personality differences, and how they inform our approaches to learning.

Extraversion (E) vs. Introversion (I)

For this article, we're going to focus on the first of the 4 spectrums: extraversion vs. introversion. This spectrum describes whether we prefer to focus on inner or outer worlds. Let's be clear: in this context, introverted doesn't necessarily mean shy. According to Myers-Briggs, people who tend towards introversion might be perfectly sociable, but they need periodic alone-time in which to reflect and make sense of things. By contrast, the more extraverted you are, the more likely you are to draw energy and develop ideas through interacting with others.  

Introverts are more likely to want to think through their ideas before explaining them to others, while for extraverts, ideas are more likely to develop through the process of explaining them. Myers-Briggs explains the situation like this: extraverts prefer to act, then think, then act again, while introverts prefer to think, then act, then think. 

How Introverted and Extraverted Preferences Impact Piano Lessons

A strong preference for either introversion and extraversion can have a huge impact on how students respond to you in lessons. Consider one-on-one lessons: these could be for students with a strong preference for introversion. In a group, the time a teacher spends with other students provides some much-needed space for reflection. In a private lesson, there's pressure to be constantly interacting - great for extraverted students, but not so great for introverted ones.

If your student is more introverted than extraverted, you may need to give them time to process information before they act on it. If you've just introduced a new concept and they pause before trying it out, don't rush them! Let them know that they can take their time; maybe even invent an excuse to leave them alone at the piano for a few minutes. 

An extravert is more likely to want to learn through interacting with you. When introducing new concepts, ask them questions and get them to try explaining the concept back to you. In fact, this tactic works just fine with introverts too - only they'll do more of the processing before they answer rather than during, so again...don't rush them. 

In a group lesson, you'll probably want to make sure activities work for both extraverted and introverted students. When you introduce a new activity, first have the students try it out silently by themselves - for example, tapping out the rhythm, or fingering without pressing down on the piano keys. Then do the activity as a class, or even have the students work on it together in pairs where possible. The first part helps introverts, and the second part helps extraverts.

The most important thing is to be watching your students for signs of discomfort or restlessness, and asking yourself whether it's possible that they need either more interaction, or more time for reflection in order to learn effectively.

For a broader overview of these personality types, check out the Myers & Briggs Foundation website. In developing our ideas for this article, we drew on Jane Kise and Beth Russell's insights on applying Myers-Briggs Type Indictors to education; if you found this article interesting, you might want to explore their work further!

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Technology provides the tools. You provide the understanding.

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